Memories of a big old peppermint gum I was asked to take down some years back…
My hands grip old wood. It’s smooth with a patina of work and aged grime that’s both comforting and expectant. This is a good axe, a woodsman’s tool used to bite with certainty into the girth of trees. Generations of woodsmen have wielded this axe as I do now, standing at the base of a towering gum and looking at the exact flake of peppermint bark where the blade will first strike. Or should strike. I imagine the eyes of old woodsmen checking my feet, hand position, tightness of grip (not too tight) and the place where the giant tree will fall. Better get this right.
“Drop it in the clearing,” I’m told by a man who is as tangled, prickly and fresh as the scrub around me. I hesitate a little because a lean in the trunk runs to the left of the clearing and towards a dense section of undergrowth punched through by some commanding stringybarks. The axe sways casually in my hands and I look up with his words hanging in my ears.
Richard Jermyn’s voice is educated and deep. I’ve not known him long enough to call him an old bushie but already I know that he’s a philosopher of wooded groves and hidden spots among the trees. His words have the same patina as the axe handle. His face and neck have more creases than banksia bark and he squints at the overcast sky as he traces his finger, moving in an arc to show how and where the tree will fall. It’s a simple instruction accompanied with no element of how the tree should be steered to the right patch of earth, but it’s all I need. Richard is confident, and so I am confident.
The axe handle slides through my left hand, pushed by my right hand that holds with just enough strength around the heel and toe at the end of the shaft. My body simultaneously twists away from the tree as my arms straighten and hands meet before grasping harder around the handle and springing back with body, upper limbs, hands and mind all focusing intently on the flake of peppermint bark.
The kick from the bite is brief before a flick of each wrist frees the blade ready for strike number two. No time or need to reposition, just return, spring and strike again, watching as bark and sapwood bursts from the wound.
About 15 minutes pass and an almighty thump, preceded by the hiss of branches, twigs and leaves careening like a giant minute hand through the forest canopy and onto the clearing below indicates that the tree has succumbed as intended.
I look at the axe head and the edge is shining from a natural polish that comes from slicing repeatedly through fresh wood. I rest it against the raw stump and look down past my heaving chest to my open hands. They ache and the handle’s grime has spread to the creases in my palms, but most noticeably they, and I, feel magnificent, accomplished, and a little bit proud.
The autumn sun has dipped from sight behind the mountainous Wadbilliga wilderness area that flanks the village of Bemboka at the foot of the Great Dividing Range in southern NSW. It’ll be a cold night, but a new day on Gaia Range Farm will soon blow the chill away as we go to work with our hands and tools.
I leave Richard tending the camp fire with a small band of people who have signed up for a workshop of remembering lost and forgotten trades. Tomorrow Richard and I will guide them through a method of carpentry that uses a simple gumbo of sharp steel, strong hands and attuned senses to make things from trees.
A rocky track leads to my caravan dwelling in the bush and I attempt sleep. I lie as still as the fallen gum, but the wombat who insists on using the caravan as a scratching post has other ideas.
Peace & whittles,